Thursday, July 15, 2010

MESSENGER Fellows Invade DC

Last week the latest cadre of MESSENGER Educator Fellows had their training here in the DC area. Many of the Fellows were able to attend. Here's a group picture along with the PI Dr. Sean Solomon who gave a fabulous presentation about the mission and what is to come.

You may be wondering what in the world is a MESSENGER Fellow. These Fellows, an essential part of the MESSENGER education and public outreach (E/PO) program, are master science teachers who conduct teacher training workshops nationally about the mission. The goal of the program is to train 27,000 grades preK-12 educators.

Using the MESSENGER Education Modules,, the Fellows are able to demonstrate that by looking at other planetary objects, such as Mercury or the Moon, one can get a better understanding of the formation of the Earth.

To learn more about the E/PO program, please visit:

Monday, April 26, 2010

80 Miles to Play-Doh Part I: When Without, Improvise!

Last week, I had the privilege of traveling to Chinle, AZ to participate in a series of educational activities related to the Moon and LRO. Traveling from the DC area, I flew to Albuquerque on Sunday in preparation for a scouting trip to Meteor and Sunset Craters on Monday. Tuesday evening, my colleagues and I were to lead an evening's worth of activities that included viewing the Moon through a telescope and discussing how scientists use Earth analogs to understand the processes that occur elsewhere in the solar system.

Monday evening, one of my fellow NASA educators mentioned that it would be a good idea to prep some hands-on activities for the students for the evening's events. After all, if we're going to be discussing volcanoes and impact craters, why not have the students investigate how they're made in the first place? We all agreed that it was a good idea and decided on our drive back to Chinle from Flagstaff that we would go to the grocery store in the morning to pick up supplies. For those of you whom have never made volcanoes in the classroom, you need the following supplies:

baking soda
paper plates
paper cups
paper towels
clear straws

Now, most of the items on the above list can be readily found at any grocery store - after all, they're all pretty common in the baking isle. On the other hand, play-doh isn't an item typically found in the grocery store. If you happen to live in an urban area, any pharmacy or big-box store would most likely have play-doh. However, if you're in Chinle, AZ, the closest big-box store or pharmacy is over 80 miles away (one-way), and in another state! So here's where our plan got interesting. There are plenty of home-made play-doh recipes out there, but most of them call for you to cook your dough (or at least to include boiling water). What's an educator to do?

My colleagues and I wandered through the small grocery store, searching desperately on our slow cell phone internet connections for a recipe to make play-doh that doesn't involve cooking. The non-cook play-doh options weren't viable for us, so we were stuck. "Wait a minute," I exclaimed, "we can use the coffee pot to heat the water up!"

So, there we were. It was 3 pm, 4 hours before the event was scheduled to start. Pouring flour, salt, cream of tartar, kool-aid, oil, and water heated in the coffee pot into the sink in the hotel bathroom. Yep, I said the sink! Turns out, a hotel sink is a perfect bowl to make home-made play-doh, and it's easy clean up. I couldn't help but laugh at our situation. If you ever asked me if I ever thought my job would have me on a Navajo reservation, 80 miles from the nearest Wal-mart, mixing play-doh in a hotel sink, I would have answered with the requisite "are you crazy?" We made cherry, orange, mango, and grape colored/flavored play-doh. The grape play-doh looked like a warm, giant ball of chewed bubblicious gum. :-P

The event turned out really well. We had about 60 people, made up of families with kids of all ages show up for our event. Everyone had a great time making volcanoes out of our home-made play-doh and learning how impact craters are made. The clouds even (mostly) cooperated with us, enabling everyone to get a close up sight of the Moon through the telescope!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

LRO Launch!

Seriously. I have to keep pinching myself to see if it's really real. This despite a first-person eyewitness of the launch, numerous phone calls from my hubby about how well things are going, and lots and lots of rocket eye candy. This week at Cocoa Beach has been a whirlwind experience. As soon as I landed on Thursday June 11th, I hit the ground running. Lots of organization, making sure speakers were well taken care of, planning, re-planning, and stressing out over making sure that everything went smoothly. Then the news that the Saturday expected launch of STS-127 was scrubbed (the news came at a brutal 3:45 am) due to a hydrogen leak in the tank, and that the window for our launch was being "negotiated." Admittedly, my Type-A self didn't take this news very well. I had been planning for this week for what seemed like forever, and to me it was a no-brainer as to the fact that LRO should clearly get our entire window. Us getting pushed meant that we had to scramble to find people to cover the exhibits and public presentations at the Visitor Center. So I was stressed. A. Lot.

Then we found out that the second attempt for STS-127 was scrubbed, and that we would get our first opportunity to launch on the second day of our window - June 18th. Now we're talking!

Launch day arrived. My stress levels had miraculously decreased. I felt calm, cool, and for the first time in several weeks, actually excited about our launch! We loaded the first bus (well, we hadn't planned on it, but that's the way it worked out) to the Banana Creek viewing site. We're ready for launch! A few hours of hanging out, eating a soft pretzel and ice cream, picking primo seats in the bleachers, and playing the waiting game for launch. While we were waiting, we had news that the weather was looking grave, and there was a better chance of the weather clearing if we pushed forward to our last opportunity at 5:32 pm. I had promised I would call in to the auditorium at Goddard where employees were gathered to give my perspective on the launch. Given the weather situation, I asked everyone in the auditorium to take a deep breath and blow in the southeast direction to clear out the storm clouds. Talk about timing, because right after I said that, a voice came over the speaker and announced that our weather conditions turned to green! We're go for launch!

What a sight. The engines lit, and our little spacecraft that could was carried up into the sky and ahead to its destination - the Moon! I cried. And I cried some more. And I cried so much that the next day my eyelids were swollen. All of that time, energy, stress, excitement, anticipation, and joy were wrapped up in that one moment in time. LRO lifted off at 5:32:00.1 pm EDT - one tenth of one second late. That moment, that singular point in time is forever recorded in my brain as the moment that all of our collective dreams became a reality. I could feel all of the people who have worked on this mission at that moment.

And all of that was just the beginning. LRO is on its way to the Moon!